Interview with Writer/Director
Chen Kaige
By Ross Anthony

RA: Previously you felt it was important to have tragedy in a film in order to have depth, but did this film convert you?

CHEN: I made myself a very happy husband and father of the family and I really enjoy my life. I discovered something I haven't seen before. I used to be very nervous because I did big films. I didn't really have a chance to look up and see how blue the sky could be, how beautiful the flowers could be when I look down. But now I'm a little bit changed. This change is very good for me. I'm not saying that this film is sort of a cheap happy ending or something. The father and son deserve to be together ... The other thing I want to say is that the Chinese people eventually learn how to be happy because the darkness of the history too many miserable things happened in the last hundred years of history in china that we almost forgot how to be happy and what the things are that can make us happy. But now along with the reform... or whatever it is called, the huge progress that the Chinese people have made in the last 20 years... we return to normal. We're more happier than before. So you can see that from this movie.

PRESS: Where did you get the idea for the film?

CHEN: I always try to discover something from real life. Life is something that can always inspire me. I saw a TV program in which the father and son almost like you see the movie, came from another province, survived in Beijing. The father was always proud of his son, saying my son is going to be number one in the world as a violin player. That story ended up with a sort of tragedy where the boy doesn't want to continue. The boy wants to turn himself into a businessman. I was very moved when I watched the TV program. I realized that this is reality. It's not changeable. You can't do anything about that. The father had a tear in his eyes. There's nothing more that he can do about it. That's the very beginning of the process, but we want to develop a completely different story -- so now the movie is here. Chen Kaige

PRESS: Being in the city and successful is not equal to being happy?

CHEN: Because our traditional cultural value has been sort of destroyed for one reason or the other... either in the political campaign or in peaceful time. And we now believe in... We used to believe in idealism, and now we believe in materialism, for sure. All the people are seeking success and money. Fame and fortune is the goal for almost everyone in China. That's good and it's bad. The good news is at least we're out of the shadow of the fake socialism and now we are just looking forward to something that is unknown future. It's a very very tricky moment for many Chinese people.

PRESS: And so Communism is dead?

CHEN: I'm not so sure it's a very good idea to pay a very high price to make yourself successful. You may lose a lot of things that you valued. I think that's the question I ask in this movie. What you really like to have -- that's your very personal choice...

PRESS: Where are you between art and commerce in your own career?

CHEN: That is the question. I am sometimes facing the same problem that the characters are facing in this movie. I don't know. I try to make a balance for myself. On the one hand, I strongly believe that filmmaking is my life. I want to continue to make a film and express myself, to tell people what I feel about this world. On the other hand, I realize that I need to make money to support a family. But not much! Not make it as like a billionaire or something. I think we live a very comfortable life because of our family background. We all know that we never want to have a luxury life, a Rolls Royce that kind of thing.

PRESS: Whenever I see your film I can't stop crying ... what's your secret?

CHEN: The answer is very simple. Because I have a very very close relationship, Hong is my wife, the guy who played the father, the guy who played the first professor are all very good friends of mine. I talked to them like a friend. I say that "Yes, this is a movie, this is a story that is being created by ourself. It's not real life; it's not documentary. On the other hand, I want everything to be real. We need to create those small details that can improve the whole quality of the movie. For example, Hong made a contribution. She used the small details to establish the relationship between the characters. The example is that when we were on the set ready to shoot the scene with the boy and first professor having a big fight. The next day when the boy was there again, then the Prof. was ready to talk about his own personal story about his past and all. I wasn't convinced as to why this Prof. could do such kind of things, tell the boy this story. I think I need something very strong, but subtle. Then Hong just say, "Why don't we just do one more shot, in which the Prof. ask the boy to find something under the bed -- then he finds a photo. The next day he comes back and without saying anything, you just put the frame on top of the piano. That's the beginning of the relationship. That's very convincing that the Prof. is able to tell the story to the boy." These small details...

RA: One reviewer I screened the film with suggested that you may have hinted that the first Prof. and the girl in the photo may have been the boy's birth parents...

CHEN: (Laughs.) Someone mentioned that to me before. No, we didn't do that intentionally. (Chuckles again.)

PRESS: Was it difficult working with your wife?

CHEN: There's no difficulty as well. Quite honestly. We got along as husband and wife and also as co-workers. We enjoyed being together to shoot this movie. She's been very supportive as a producer as well. Yeah, many people ask me this question. Probably they expect us to have a huge serious fight. No, never happened. She can be very tough, but she was okay. She was fine.

PRESS: Hong ... what do you say about that?

HONG: (Translated from Mandarin.) First of all, he's very demanding from the actors. But that's why many actors like to work with him. After the experience I discovered that I could do so well as an actor.

PRESS: How difficult is it to make a film in China these days? Financially and especially after you criticize the system?

CHEN: Actually, it really depends on who you are and what project you want to do. If you're new filmmakers, it could be very difficult financially and they have to pick their project very carefully. But for me, I'm very lucky, because I have support from film people. Yes we still have censorship. I argue with them, but this is what it is. We have to deal with this all the time. We have to submit the screenplay to the film bureau, we need the screen after the film is made to those Gov. officials. But we're used to this. What can you do? I think that with more conversation with those officials-- I guess what they want is to be respected. If you come and say nice things then maybe you get what you want.

PRESS: Talk about Lesley.

CHEN: My wife and I where in Hong Kong before the New Year, we tried to find him by making several phone calls, eventually we were told he wasn't in a very good mood. Sort of depressed. I don't know why. Somebody said that he was haunted by the ghost of the last film. I'm not so sure it's right. We were in Beijing when our friend calls from Hong Kong. ... We were very very shocked we didn't want to believe this was true. Because we did want him to play a part in our next project. How sad it is. I wrote an article to give to the Chinese film magazine. He was just like that... very emotional. Very sensitive. The first reaction from me was that he really turned himself into the character that he played in "Farewell My Concubine."

PRESS: Talk about the backdrop of the film.

CHEN: That's the other thing that I want to do with this picture to show the real change taking place in China. Some change for good, some change for worse. I don't want to be lost again like politically in the past. Because I think the people now, most of them, the Chinese people, live in fear that they'll lose their opportunity to make themselves millionaires. It's an economic fear.

RA: Why did you choose to play the affluent professor?

CHEN: I didn't want to act, I was too busy. But, I didn't want to wait. Wasting time, my casting director traveling China trying to find the right one, but we failed to find a good one. So I was told by another director who was my friend, that I was tough enough to play this part. Because he saw how I worked with my actors on set. .... I think I can be a very good one (violin professor).

PRESS: How much was your personal experience useful to the movie?

CHEN: Everything's personal. If I didn't know that much about relationship between father and son, I don't think I could do this movie.

[Review of Together]  |  [More interviews]

Copyright © 2001. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit:

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 17-Mar-2004 15:36:50 PST